I’VE FORGOTTEN APPROXIMATELY 46 percent of the just-translated 1990 Bernard Comment novel The Shadow of Memory — things like dialect tics, how verdant that Parisian cityscape looks in late May, what phrase is written below Masaccio’s Trinity, or exactly when the sidelined female-interest character was pert or sad. This isn’t to say Comment writes nothing notable, but more that a novel’s limestone casings can’t consistently be Karenina train-laden; The Recognitions’s Anselm doesn’t castrate himself in a toilet stall on every page. There’s usually a lot of realist junk between the punctuations we actually remember. Georg Lukács had a thing about the novel being the art form of becoming, a flux of linear development across pages into a terminal wall. We forget a lot, not just the microscopy of whether a character exhales or inhales, but even the impressionistic stuff that doesn’t keep our attention after we turn the page. This reflects my memory of how Comment’s novel begins:
So much reading, in vain. Whole afternoons spent raging, crying, sweating, locked into chasing after some scrap of memory, and the next day, nothing. A few crumbs, too weak; the rhythm falls apart, meaning evaporates. Impossible to make so much as the briefest paragraph, the least sentence stick inside my skull.
When “the attention economy” sounds like an apt name for our era, it’s probably an unfortunate world-historical time for novels, with their high-attention demands and meager memorial payout. Coupled with this is that there’s been a lot of novels. Any undergraduate glance at a Western canon, whether from Harold Bloom, NYRB Classics, Verso, or a Time listicle, maps an Everest that excites some for scaling while dissuading many more. Some people, like me and the unnamed protagonist of The Shadow of Memory, have the hubris that if you’re in the novel business you should go all out — that first you inherit, then you digest, and only then can something you write be, yes, new.
There are many weak approaches to packaging the whole of literary memory. I myself have become a bad bureaucrat of letters: I type up passages, syntactic constructions, character names, physical descriptions (“long grape-green eyes” — only ID’d this as Bellow after a search), thematic binaries, decapitated similes, nice words. And, like most bureaucrats, I wonder how many like me are out there. Among public data collection is Goodreads, the social network that logs books read, reading, and to-read with starry rating scales; the site hit 10 million members last August. Then, if you forget something, Google will cough up the name or scene. Everyone approximates Samuel Pepys when they can download a quotidian .zip of their Facebook life. Whether publicly, privately, or in a weird amalgam of the two, we’ve been building a great pyramid of data for the future, from the invisible Wikipedia grunt to the Yahoo Answers respondent. One might think all this can and should be used.
Published in 1990 and only now translated into English from the original French, Comment’s The Shadow of Memory is a weirdly prophetic allegory that captures the anxiety of mass data attainability and collective transactive memory. His protagonist goes to the Bibliothèque Nationale to copy down into his lapt...read more